As a young boy, I had the extreme good fortune of having a mum who worked as the assistant librarian at the school library. I spent endless hours hanging around in there, slowly working my way around the shelves. By the time I left primary school, I had read the entire thing.
With such a voracious appetite for books, my years of high school English were marked by a wide range of reading, along with an adept use of vocabulary, imagination and lateral thinking. I had perceptive debating skills, and often found myself speaking in public on behalf of different student groups.
High school, of course, culminated in the Higher School Certificate. Every Australian kid knows beyond all doubt, that this is the most important test they will ever have to do. Their life’s trajectory hinges on the outcome of their HSC.
I never actually learned what my English mark was. It was simply recorded as <30%, the lowest possible score. I found this more ironic than disappointing.
Due to a lack of direction, and the imposition of life events, it was a few years before I went to university. On application, I found they had no interest in my HSC mark. I had one, and that was enough. Over the years, I went on to acquire more degrees than anybody has a right to have. Sometimes I was granted exemptions due to recognition of prior learning. This was always based on the unit outline from the previous course. It was never based on my performance.
For two separate university units I studied, they were so riddled with mistakes and ambiguities, that even within the education system, marking was impossible. There were lots of complaints. An obviously unacceptable position for the university, and one they could not really correct for, they eventually simply graded everybody with a pass.
For another unit, which I studied at an outlying campus with an inspiring teacher, our class so outperformed the main campus, that it was an embarrassment to them. Our marks were graded down to match the spread from the larger group.
The last time I received a high distinction, was for a unit where I never attended a single lecture or tutorial. I never looked at the text book. I arrived late for the final exam, and having forgotten the name of the unit I was supposed to be studying, I just took a seat next to someone I recognised and assumed I was in the right place. What I had done, however, was find some ‘practice exams’ tucked away behind a link in the unit outline, and rote learned all the answers the day before. To this day, I am torn between being pleased for working the system so effectively, and appalled at having such an experience classed as education.
Only a small minority of employers have ever shown any interest in what I actually studied to gain my qualifications. Some have actively resisted finding out. None have ever considered my marks relevant. In fact, the idea that a good student equates to a good employee, is commonly derided.
Over the last year or so, I have been involved in educating nursing staff and students inside the hospital where I work. I found it all quite bizarre at first. I am dealing with a population which routinely deals with blood, screaming, panic, and life threatening situations. As a broad rule, they do this calmly and proficiently. When faced with an assessment task or test, however, they baulk, avoid me, throw a tantrum, produce an endless variety of reasons why they cannot or should not be subjected to an exam, and generally behave in extremely odd ways. The fear of exam pressure haunts people all their lives.
These experiences and others have quite confirmed to me that assessment results are largely arbitrary, broadly meaningless, and often destructive.
With my oldest boy still in kindergarten, it is a little early in the piece to be feeling any pressing need for assessment, but I know it is coming. I realise that there needs to be some sort of method to gauge how much people have learned. I just cannot think of a publicly accepted alternative to the hopelessly ineffective method we have.
I am happy to concede that ‘test sitting’ is an important skill to be able to use in navigating an education system. We live in a culture obsessed with exams. Sooner or later, we all have to sit for them, it seems, so we might as well get high marks. ‘Test sitting’ then becomes a skill in its own right. It is something to be used in a semi-formal context, like structuring an essay, or writing a resume.
So tightly bound to the education process, it is a fundamental question I struggle with. Do you assess your home schooling students? If you do, how do you do it, and what are you aiming to achieve by doing so?
I am fascinated to know.